aty, a sophomore at Chicago’s Northwestern University, strolled into the Livingstone home at 11 p.m. one Friday night.
“No challah left?” she groused.
Hostess Tamar — who’d laboriously prepared a lavish spread for 70 Jewish students — stifled a retort. Unbeknownst to her, the scene would repeat itself tens of times: Katy would saunter in late, then find numerous reasons to kvetch, broadcasting negativity. She showed a near-total disconnect to others’ feelings, often demanding to talk when Tamar was overwhelmed or in the middle of bedtime.
“I remember thinking ‘Man, she’s ungrateful!’ ” Tamar says. “I made an effort, but just couldn’t develop a relationship. She was negative about everything.”
Despite misgivings, Tamar stretched herself to welcome Katy each week. When she organized a college trip to Israel, the dynamic kiruv professional feared Katy — who wanted to join — would pull down the group, but she ultimately yielded.
For Katy, the tour proved life-changing. “When she came for Shabbos afterward, she cried to me in the kitchen,” Tamar reports. “She had a breakthrough in Israel, something deeply touched her soul.”
Over the next several years, an inspired Katy committed to Shabbos and tzniyus and, more astoundingly, revamped her personality. Today, she is frum and happily married, with exemplary middos. “We have never seen a student grow so much,” Tamar says.
Like hundreds of couples worldwide, Tamar and her husband Josh engage in full-time campus outreach, today’s most popular — and arguably effective — form of frontline kiruv. They assist fellow Jews in discovering their heritage during college, a time when students are unrestrained by prior relationships and excited to make definitive life choices.
“College kids feel ‘I left my parents’ house; it’s time to figure out who I am,’ ” says Mrs. Aliza Bulow, a Denver-based educator who serves as national coordinator for Ner LeElef’s North American Women’s Program. She explains that while several life stages are characterized by this questing energy — after first birth, empty nesting, retirement — the college years outstrip them all in intensity and potential. This demographic also offers the easiest logistics: Students are consolidated in one location. And because they’re free agents, results are more rapid and quantifiable.
“The goal of kiruv is shemiras hamitzvos,” Mrs. Bulow says. “You can aim for that on the community level, with a married couple or small family, but it might take 10 or 15 years — or never happen at all.”
About 15 percent of kiruv couples live on campus. They fulfill their mission — Jewishly engaging as many students as possible — through exciting events, lively Shabbos meals, eye-opening Torah classes, and meaningful one-on-one meetings. To ensure high event participation, the dynamic duos recruit undergrads by “tabling:” setting up a table on the main drag alongside other campus organizations and piquing the interest of passersby while distributing flyers. They might ask, “Hey, are you Jewish? Want to bake challah? Want to experience Shabbat?”
“My radar got really good,” recalls Reena, a former campus kiruv professional who lives in Clifton, New Jersey. “But when I would make a mistake, some people got insulted. They’d say, ‘What is it, my nose?’ So I started asking more pareve questions: ‘Have you ever been to Israel? Know any Jews?’ ”
With technology now at the center of any movement, campus mekarvim also engage in online correspondence with students, through e-mail and social media. The most common strategy, says Mrs. Bulow, is “table, table, trip”: Students are “tabled” on the mall, intrigued enough to join a Shabbos table, and eventually, interested in traveling to the Holy Land.
“One year in Israel equals about ten years of learning in the States,” she shares. “That’s the math of Eretz Yisrael.”
A Study in Contrasts
The campus setup, however, is not without pitfalls. “A campus mekarev must realize that he is in a bomb-disposal unit,” says Rabbi Dr. Ivan Lerner, who serves as a mentor and mental-health consultant to several campus kiruv organizations in the States and overseas. “Every day you go out there, there are substantial risk factors. You can’t let the wires touch.”
The most obvious challenge kiruv couples face? The ultra-permissive, ultra-liberal environment. Campuses are awash in alcohol, lewdness, and drugs. In many universities, belief in G-d is explicitly ridiculed, and religion is synonymous with bigotry, deemed a lingering medieval nuisance.
“It’s not immoral, it’s amoral,” asserts Rabbi Dr. Lerner. “You’re working in a place with no boundaries. In relation to where mekarvim come from — kollelim and yeshivos — university campuses are in diametric opposition.”
While probably no stable mekarev has yet lost his faith on the job, the fear of hashkafic dilution and numbed sensitivities is well-founded. Reena shares that despite deep Torah convictions and years of study, the environment wore her down. “It plays with your mind; things seep in. You can go a few months without attending a shiur or going to a shalom zachor, and then you come back to ‘your people’ and feel out of place.”
Reena, who was very involved in kiruv in Eretz Yisrael before moving to campus, describes how college students routinely bring up sordid topics, or casually mention committing some hashkafic abomination. Eventually, she realized the home-team advantage was real: With Israel-based kiruv, students are on your turf.
“When you’re in an environment that is kulo Torah, there’s a psychological net. There’s safety in knowing you’re supported by the sheer numbers of people around you. No matter how belligerent they are, students won’t say certain things in Israel — there’s respect. On campus, I had to bend to their side of the conversation, ‘understand’ where they were coming from, even when it was so wrong.”
Miriam Ganger, who does campus kiruv with her husband at Harvard University, says this line of work requires “tolerance of overtolerance. There’s a growing ideological gulf with the students, but through patience, love, and the belief in the power of personal relationships, it’s possible to bridge that gap.”
The ideological influences, says Mrs. Bulow, are — unfortunately — to be expected. She echoes Rav Yisrael Salanter’s famous dirty broom parable: “It costs some of your kedushah to give to others; it’s not free. Kiruv is called mesirus nefesh for a reason. Hopefully Hashem will see us gathering in the lost sparks, and protect and strengthen His mekarvim.”
Additionally, the Ner LeElef mentor notes, a spiritual setback may bespeak a belief system that was weak to begin with. Mrs. Bulow once asked a baal teshuvah mekarev experiencing numerous personal crises on campus, “What would you do if you had enough time, energy, and money?”
The rabbi replied, “I’d just snowboard, all day, every day.” He didn’t want to be a rabbi, father, or married man. In Israel, Mrs. Bulow explains, where it’s “easy” to be frum, this fellow probably didn’t realize his Yiddishkeit was floundering. The cracks only appeared when he left his growth-oriented environment.
In contrast, when a mekarev arrives on campus with a strong foundation, they have a more effective tool kit to weather inevitable challenges. “Sometimes you need to break in order to build,” Mrs. Bulow sums up. “Questions can shake up mekarvim, but they’ll be forced to look harder for answers and ultimately, emerge stronger.”
Ivy Edelstein and her husband, Rabbi Yosef, have served as campus mekarvim at George Washington University for over a decade. While the Edelsteins live off campus and were perhaps less impressionable to begin with — they entered the scene as an established family — Ivy cites one strategy that’s helped enormously: Never stop learning.
“If you’re going to inspire others, you have to stay inspired,” she says. “Kiruv should be an organic process, your love of Torah naturally spilling over. TorahAnytime [an online source of shiurim], local shiurim, davening, talking to mentors, textual learning from seforim you enjoy — these are all musts.”
On Call 24/7
The unrelenting pressure of campus kiruv can significantly strain marriage and family dynamics. Campus hours are hardly ideal for a young family: To connect and attract students to events, mekarvim often correspond electronically hours past midnight. (During the day, students are preoccupied and barely responsive.) Male mekarvim frequently return from night events or classes in the wee hours of the morning.
The erratic time frame is unsurprising for a job that has few boundaries. “Students would come into our house at any time, and suddenly we were ‘on,’ ” remembers Beatie Deutsch, who lived with her family for two years on a Tuscon campus. “It was hard to have a good work-life balance.”
The challenge is exacerbated by an oft-misunderstood analogy. Aish HaTorah visionary Rav Noah Weinberg — whose sincerity, idealism, and passion are legendary — used to say “We are experiencing a Holocaust. If you saw fellow Jews on a train to Auschwitz, would you not pull them off? How can you stand still for a moment?”
Many couples, however, make the mistake of applying this metaphor literally. “The husband might think: ‘How can I go to sleep when I’m pulling people off the train?’ ” Mrs. Bulow reports.
Social media, which Mrs. Bulow calls a “time-sucker,” is at the core of this struggle. While mekarvim need the Internet to attract students, there are no clear guidelines. The mekarev needs to publicize events, learn about and connect with students, but at what point is he wasting time?
“How much ‘liking’ do you have to do?” questions Mrs. Bulow. “How many pictures should you look at? How many comments do you have to make? It’s a holy yetzer hara. It’s very hard to draw the line.”
Avigayil, who spent a year in campus kiruv, describes the intense pressure. “The message is: ‘If you don’t put in more hours, something very serious and bad will happen. Either you’ll lose your job, or the student will marry a goy and another neshamah will be lost.’ The stakes are so high that putting in those extra hours becomes essential. It’s very hard to put your marriage in perspective.”
To counteract this trend, Mrs. Bulow conveys an unequivocal message: Marriage comes first. “If you’re not living it, you can’t teach it,” she tells the idealistic men and women. “You have to proactively make time for your relationship.”
Rabbi Dr. Lerner takes this further, giving unambiguous minimums for marital time investment. “I tell kiruv couples, just like you have appointments at work, you need a dedicated evening every week to do something with your spouse for at least three hours. Without kids.”
The longtime psychologist also urges husbands and wives to go away together at least three times a year. “It doesn’t have to be far or expensive. But they have to unwind and refresh. This is important for every couple, but it’s critical for a couple on campus.”
Living off campus is one way to ease the work-family balance equation. “It’s not the same,” says Scottsdale native Risa Brumer, whose husband, Rabbi Jordan, directs Jewish Arizonians on Campus (JAC). Risa lives 20 minutes from Arizona State University and travels there most days to conduct one-on-one meetings with girls, usually at the local Starbucks. After a morning of meetings, she drives home to care for her seven children.
“I think couples who stay in kiruv long-term do not live on campus, but in a community within driving distance,” observes Beatie Deutsch, who today resides in Har Nof, where her husband teaches beginners at Derech Eitz Chaim. “On campus, I wasn’t as available as I wanted to be for my kids.”
On Tuesdays, as an example, Beatie would come home at 3:30 p.m. after a full day of intense one-on-one meetings. She’d dive straight into baths and supper, rushing to get her three young kids to bed and start her in-house Torah class at 7.
“My life today has much less tension; it’s a better fit,” she admits. “But I miss the one-on-one relationships. Being part of someone’s journey to Yiddishkeit — it’s special.”
Venus and Mars
Campus mekarvim inevitably interface with students of the opposite gender. From tabling to Shabbos meals to night events, there’s an inherent connection: The mekarev/es must be intriguing enough to make the student stay and want more. The challenge this presents to cultivating a life of kedushah is evident.
“There must be clear parameters for where you meet, when you meet, how you meet,” says Rabbi Dr. Lerner. “You are bringing people closer, but you must always be aware that you’re in a bomb-disposal unit. We must take proper precautions.”
Even if all halachos are upheld, says former mekareves Reena, male mekarvim meeting one-on-one with females — in her view — is a slippery slope. “The goal is the relationship; the whole point is emotional connection,” she explains. “My husband and I are lucky that we instinctively understood — as naive kids — that this setup is dangerous, because no one told us so.”
One kiruv organization conferred with gedolim who permitted male mekarvim to teach Torah to women, albeit with strict guidelines. But in an ideal situation, says Rabbi Dr. Lerner, the wife is an equal partner. When the man meets a girl interested in Judaism, he immediately refers her on, asking his wife: “Can you have coffee with her tomorrow?” If his wife is not the extroverted teaching type, he sends the girl to another respected mekareves.
Beatie Deutsch and her husband are grateful that they were able to successfully implement this paradigm. But, she says, challenges present even with both husband and wife involved (Shabbos tables, wife speaking to a mixed group, etc.). Mekarvim must be aware of the pitfalls and speak openly with each other.
When faced with delicate questions — like a wife who feels uncomfortable with some of her husband’s interactions — Rabbi Dr. Lerner’s response is emphatic: Your marriage comes first.
“Even if the student is moving along nicely, if your spouse feels discomfited, you need to pass the relationship onward,” he’ll tell callers, noting that a wife’s instincts are almost always on target. “If your wife feels perpetually uncomfortable, you may need to leave the campus and seek other employment.”
One highly effective geder suggested at an outreach conference is a shared e-mail address, or easy spousal access to the other’s electronic data. “This method works because it recognizes human nature,” says Rabbi Dr. Lerner. “We are automatically more careful to set boundaries when we know someone else is looking.”
Another effective strategy is to have students refer to mekarvim with a title. “I am not introduced with my first name,” Ivy Edelstein says, noting that her husband — dubbed by some students “the Starbuckker Rebbe” — is also called “Rabbi E.” “If a student mistakenly addressed me as Ivy in an e-mail, I’ll gently remind him by signing off as ‘Mrs. E.’ ”
The gender challenge is particularly acute for younger couples, who are often only a year or two older than their students. These couples must be doubly aware that students are not their friends. “You’re their mentor, and you need to be clear about that in your own heart,” Ivy Edelstein advises younger kiruv counterparts. Asking a student to babysit, she offers as an example, must be an honest opportunity to draw them closer to Yiddishkeit — not a favor asked from a friend. If mekarvim are recruiting students to babysit from desperation, they need to look elsewhere.
While relationships with mentors always evolve, Ivy adds, and “it is so gratifying when former students become dear friends,” the initial dynamic must be teacher-student.
Talia, a mekareves of over ten years, recalls a humorous anecdote illustrating this point. Janet, a college student, joined Talia’s family almost every Friday night for three years and became very close to Talia. Eventually, Janet committed to Torah and mitzvos and got engaged to a ben Torah. While preparing for her wedding, she asked Talia to accompany her to the bridal salon — along with Janet’s mother and best friend — so they could experience the special milestone together.
“At that moment,” remembers Talia, “I thought, ‘I’m one of her best friends!’ ”
Then Janet continued: “It’s so important that you come, Talia, because you’re like a second mom to me.”
A Taste of Eternity — Tastefully
Shabbos tables are a central element in all forms of kiruv, including campus outreach. For former mekareves Reena, Friday night dinners were her “favorite and least favorite part.”
“The week revolved around Friday night,” she remembers. “It was a huge pressure. The cooking didn’t end, and you never knew who would show. My babies would inevitably wake up when the meal started and strategically stay up until bentshing — not easy. And sometimes students just showed up for the food.”
At the same time, these meals were often the most dynamic part of her job, setting the stage for meaningful conversations and connections.
One student was particularly taken by a Yom Tov meal in Reena’s succah. Several days later, she and husband Zvi discovered a photo of the meal on Facebook — complete with challah, grape juice, and china. “Hey, wasn’t that on Yom Tov?” Zvi wondered aloud. Today, the clueless photographer lives in Jerusalem with her husband and family, living a Torah-true life.
For couples with young kids who require more attention, the meal can become a formidable juggling act. “It wasn’t easy to host with rambunctious kids,” Ivy Edelstein says, reflecting on her children’s younger years. “I used to be mechazek myself by saying: If Hashem wanted them to be different, He would have made them differently. Students are looking at the whole package; we’re exposing them to healthy, normal family life.”
The Shabbos table can also present chinuch challenges. When guests drive up to the home after dark, or show up in less-than-modest attire, parents must prepare an explanation. “I tell my kids: We have no idea why some Jewish people were born into secular families. We are trying to give them a taste of the chinuch they did not receive. You are so lucky!” says Ivy.
The bigger challenge, perhaps, is moderating the discussions and overall feel of the Shabbos table.
In the Brumer home, Rabbi Jordan sets the tone by introducing the meal as a forum for Jewish thought and opening the floor to discussion. “One of things we like to do at our Shabbos table is share words of Torah and inspiration,” Rabbi Brumer regularly announces. “You would enhance our Shabbos by sharing that with us.” The rabbi is also diligent about announcing page numbers and song names from the NCSY bentsher, so guests feel empowered to stay on track.
On the rare occasion that a guest broaches a topic inappropriate for children, Risa might interrupt and say, “This is a really interesting conversation; let’s finish talking about it after the kids go to sleep.”
Rabbi Dr. Lerner advises campus couples to distribute guide sheets in advance of the meal, outlining the schedule and gently conveying expectations. To minimize modesty issues, for example, hosts can write “We ask all guests — men and women — to dress modestly to honor the Sabbath.”
To avoid unsuitable subjects, they can write, “Since our Shabbos table includes our children, topics may come up that we’d be happy to discuss during the week on campus, rather than at the table.”
Still, because of the freewheeling nature of campus life, mekarvim often don’t know in advance who will drop in Friday night and how they’ll be attired, reminds Rabbi Dr. Lerner. The gracious hosts simply deal with situations in real time. “I know some former college students who ‘dropped in’ to a Friday night dinner thinking they were headed to a campus beer party. They’re now sitting and learning in Yerushalayim.”
Most importantly, says Rabbi Dr. Lerner, mekarvim must realize that they need not save the world. “If a person is so unhealthy that he needs to constantly bring up controversial or age-inappropriate topics in front of your children, stop inviting him,” he counsels. “We want a healthy person to become a healthy frum person. If a guest has various pathologies, you’re not helping him by making him frum. He needs to resolve his problems first.”
On the whole, mekarvim feel their children’s Yiddishkeit has only been strengthened through the exposure. “Your home is your home,” Ivy Edelstein says. “If you have enough confidence to educate these people, and your kids sense that confidence, they’ll instinctively understand when a behavior is unacceptable. They’ll take their cue from you.”
She recalls a Shabbos meal in which a male and female guest did something mildly inappropriate. At that moment, Ivy snuck a glance at her teenage daughter — and found her subtly rolling her eyes, silently conveying “They just don’t know!”
“My kids know what’s right,” says Ivy. “At the same time, they’re nonjudgmental. They see a cross-section of Jewry that looks nothing like Lakewood or Yerushalayim, but they know this is also Klal Yisrael, and we’ll never stop loving or giving to them.”
Risa Brumer adds that children of mekarvim usually have a strong sense of emes and mission. “My kids know that the reason we do what we do is because we believe there is One Hashem Who created the world, Who gave the Torah on Har Sinai, and we want to share that,” she says. “They have a strong sense that this job is very important.”
The bottom line? Outreach chinuch is not insular or protective, but it can be enormously valuable. “We need those people in Yerushalayim, carefully cultivating greenhouses for their children,” says Mrs. Bulow. “And we also need those who are finding different types of chinuch options while reaching out. It’s all part of the areivus.”
Bolstering the Front Lines
To help kiruv couples balance clashing priorities in a physically and emotionally demanding job, a solid support system is in order. Some men and women, however, report this element lacking.
“I wasn’t so prepared,” acknowledges Beatie Deutsch. “Before we started, all I could think was, ‘This is so amazing; we’re going to teach people Torah.’ I didn’t realize how much pressure we’d experience.”
One of the Deutsches’ main struggles was getting caught up in the numbers. “It was so easy to get stuck in ‘we want huge Shabbos meals, we need to build our name on campus,’ ” Beatie remembers. “It was tempting to want to be really popular. Over time, we learned that successful mekarvim might not have big numbers, but they have a lot of quality chavrusas — balanced people with good middos who really want to learn.”
Much of the support kiruv couples require is emotional, because burnout risk is high. “Any helping profession has support groups, conferences, resource materials,” notes Braha Bender, who did outreach with her husband on a Leeds campus in Britain for a year.
Braha feels mainstream kiruv organizations should take an example from Chabad, which boasts extraordinary infrastructure: conventions (international, national, local), magazines, newsletters, online support systems, videos, and more.
Some organizations are increasingly appreciating this need. Mrs. Aliza Bulow, for example, was hired by Ner LeElef as a full-time mentor for mekarvos, advising them on issues ranging from Torah-class preparation to marital concerns. She also actively works on expanding support options; for example, she recently launched a private social media group where mekarvos can obtain peer counsel. (“Which Torah source can I use to respond to this question?” “What icebreaker game should we play at this event?”)
Rabbi Dr. Lerner, also hired by a major kiruv organization in recent years, does similar work for campus mekarvim. But he believes additional peer review is necessary: Just as even the most seasoned psychologists have preceptors who help them work through difficult situations, kiruv professionals would benefit from peer evaluation and support.
“I’ve been working as a psychologist for 35 years, and I still need to sometimes hear ‘refer that case out’ or ‘you’re getting too close,’ ” Rabbi Dr. Lerner says. “Sometimes, when you get caught up in heavy personal discussions, you forget that you can become part of the problem.”
Once, Rabbi Dr. Lerner received a call from a campus kiruv rabbi who frantically shared that a 28-year-old female student just phoned to say she overdosed on drugs. “I’m headed to the dorm now,” the rabbi panted.
“No, you are not,” Rabbi Dr. Lerner informed him. “Call 911 now and get an EMT.”
“I can’t!” the rabbi protested. “She’ll be upset with me, it’s a breach of confidentiality!”
“This woman is in life-threatening danger,” Rabbi Dr. Lerner persisted. “You are not an EMT, you are not a doctor. After the ambulance takes her to the hospital, meet her in the ER — with your wife.”
The rabbi resignedly capitulated. Two days later, he thanked Rabbi Dr. Lerner — in the emotion of the moment, he realized, he would have done something inappropriate and ineffective.
“It’s very easy to fall into the trap of ‘someone needs me — I’m indispensable,’ ” Rabbi Dr. Lerner says. “That’s just one reason peer review and easy mentor access are critical.”
A Profession of Passion
Campus kiruv isn’t easy or uncomplicated. But paralleling the profession’s pitfalls are the inestimable gains: lives and generations transformed for eternity. For many mekarvim, this prospect — combined with overwhelming love for fellow Jews — keeps them going.
“I often think, ‘I have 24 hours, seven days a week, how do I want to fill them?’ ” relates Risa Brumer. “I am so grateful to be filling my days with reaching out, doing something I love.”
For the rest of us — Jews for whom campus kiruv might not work — there’s yet another form of outreach to try, an equal-opportunity approach proposed by our Creator Himself.
“We haven’t yet tried Hashem’s kiruv plan,” Mrs. Bulow points out. “He ‘advised’ us to shine brightly enough as a people, to build communities that are so honest, so caring, and so polite, that people crave to join them. When we live in a way that makes people stop and admire, that’s when they’ll decide that a life powered by Torah and mitzvos is a life worth emulating.”
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 458)